Longlisted for the 2011 Man Booker Prize, Jamrach's Menagerie by Carol Birch is the first book on the list I've read this year and what a place to start.
In what must be some time in the Victorian era, eight year old Jaffy Brown moves to London from Bermondsey with his mother, too unaware to be afraid he pets a tiger in the street that has escaped from a crate and is taken into its jaws. This chance encounter brings him to the attention of Mr Jamrach owner of a menagerie of exotic animals for whom he then works before being swept up in the excitement promised by an adventure at sea with best friend Tim and their idol, old sea dog Dan Rymer.
The narrative is rich, vivid and colourful, both in the early days of Tim and Jaffy's time in the menagerie and later when they go to sea. I read Moby Dick, well 95% of it, in 2009 and there are shades of Melville in this novel. Where it succeeds over the classic is the difficulty presented in Moby Dick was Melville's tendency to go off plot and character, to spend a few chapters discussing, or rather waffling on (in my opinion) about the anatomy of the whale or the many uses of whale oil and there is no such difficulty here. Birch's writing focuses on plot, character and setting and pulls you up and down with the motion of the boat.
As their adventure with Rymer begins to turn sour, the book becomes ever more compelling. Although you realise what may be about to happen before it does, their harrowing experience becomes all the more riveting to read. The eloquent strong prose impresses as does the originality at work here.
Where I had a minor quibble was that in moving the location from Jamrach's Menagerie to the sea, there was a lost opportunity in the original and interesting setting of a story about a business dealing in the trade of exotic animals, this was really a location from which a very unique story could have been born. Yet, the novel is still unique. It just seems a waste, although there is a link between the two stories, the mission Rymer is tasked with, a mission which to the superstitious seaman becomes a curse. Birch based Jamrach's Menagerie on two real life tales and would not have been able to do the second without including the sea section
At the centre of all things is the touching friendship of Jaffy and Tim, and the book is worth it for that alone. A worthy contender for the Booker, I hope to see in shortlisted and potentially win the contest 9.5/10